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Storyboarding for Depth and Clarity

Storyboarding for Depth and Clarity

A Session with Earl Javorsky

There are lots of ways to create a novel. You can start with an idea—What if the Germans won World War Two?—then imagine an opening and just run with it, creating as you go. Or, you can start with a character, flesh the character out, put her in harmony with and opposition to other characters, and run with that, letting the characters’ interactions create the narrative. Some people take a popular novel, use it as a template, and plug in their own settings, character, and action—similar to what a songwriter might do to create a new but not very original pop song.

But what if you have your idea, and your characters, and a sense of what problems they might face, ordeals they’ll endure, betrayals and shifting alliances, disappointments and triumphs, and unexpected changes of the heart? How are you to hang it all together so that it not only makes sense but provides a rhythm, an ebb and flow of tension, and closure that really pays off?

This is where storyboarding comes in. You have your elements, your scenes and your scenery, and storyboarding is the visual aid that will help you string these gems together.

Exercise: An Instant Idea

Here’s an exercise that will give you an idea of how storyboarding can work.

Let’s create an instant idea (I’m making this up as I type—once you get the gist of it, try the exercise with your own instant material): A boy’s dog mauls his best friend—who dies—and the boy grows up scarred by the experience.

Now we brainstorm—jotting down some notes:

  • the boy withdraws, his grades decline
  • a few years later, he discovers drugs
  • in and out of trouble
  • promising athlete
  • drops out of college
  • tries to be a musician
  • more trouble
  • problems in relationships
  • you just ran out of ideas
  • start throwing out “what ifs” and “maybes”
  • what if he gets a job at the animal shelter?
  • what if he finds redemption (did he cause or allow the dog attack to happen?) in dealing with animals? Or with kids?
  • he meets someone he likes, but there’s a problem
  • he finds out he has a terminal disease
  • if as an adult he thinks he’s at fault, go back to the original event and describe why

Add something to flesh out each note: For discovering drugs, describe his (or her) first time smoking a joint. For the college experience, what was the last straw? An F in Philosophy? A DUI that landed him in jail during finals week?

Now, there are a number of ways to storyboard. Some people like full-size notebook pages (or bigger), with text and images. You can tape them to a wall in your writing room and ponder them like a movie detective with all the elements of his case spread out visually. There’s software for storyboarding—lots of it, and I imagine it can be really useful but I haven’t tried it. I prefer to use 4×6 index cards.

So, transcribe notes to cards. Spread them out. Do you have an armature or a skeleton to hang a story on? Can you see a storyline here? Can you imagine scenes to connect and complete your story? Add them. Throw out the terminal disease idea—you don’t need it, it’ll just interfere.

For structure and dynamics, I found The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler to be hugely helpful. Vogler looks at novels and films in terms of Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology—the stories ancient cultures told about creation, life, gods, and heroes. Campbell emphasizes the common themes in these stories and casts them as expressions of Jungian archetypes playing themselves out and revealing themselves through the various cultures. Vogler goes a step further and examines the commonality of structure throughout all classical mythology and then goes on to show how our best contemporary works—as well as the mediocre pop-culture blockbusters—conform to this structure. It’s not about cranking out cookie-cutter tales, but rather it’s about tapping into a d